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Jack O’Neill, the founder of the O’Neill brand, went from Navy pilot to a game-changing surfer and entrepreneur

Wetsuits suitable for all types of watersports!” is the motto of the O’Neill brand of Californian wear and surfboards, started in 1952 by Jack O’Neill.

O’Neill was an American businessman credited with the invention of the wetsuit and the founder of the O’Neill brand. He was born on March 27th in Denver, Colorado, in 1923. He grew up in Oregon and Southern California, where he was first attracted to body surfing in the late 1930s. During World War II, he served as a Navy pilot. After the war, he moved to San Francisco, where he graduated from the San Francisco State University with a degree in liberal arts.

The ocean was Jack’s sanctuary and his mantra was “When you get all screwed up, and you jump in the ocean, everything’s all right again.” However, his favorite activity was often hard on his body, which suffered from the low ocean temperatures. So he decided to do something about it, creating the neoprene wetsuit that defied the cold.

At the time, other companies and manufacturers were experimenting with the technology but O’Neill Inc. decided to commit its designers to the creation of the wetsuit, thus becoming the commercial pioneer of the wetsuit.

Jack O’Neill.
Jack O’Neill.

The creation and mass production of the neoprene wetsuit is an incredible invention that allows people to surf in frigid waters in any season. The wetsuit is an insulating garment that is able to trap a small quantity of water against the skin which is then warmed by body heat.

Surfers in steamer wetsuits. Author: “Mike” Michael L. Baird. CC BY 2.0.
Surfers in steamer wetsuits. Author: “Mike” Michael L. Baird. CC BY 2.0.

According to The New York Times, the O’Neill slogan “It’s always summer on the inside” revolutionized surfing around the world, creating endless summers for surfers, and moreover, changed the image of the surfer from a casual beach drifter to a bona fide athlete.

The company grew to be a worldwide success, but Jack never lost his vigor and rebellious spirit.

Along the way, Jack traveled the world and became internationally known as a surfer, an airplane and balloon pilot, sailor, fisherman, and adventurer,” his company states on its website. Jack O’Neill is remembered as an icon among surfers with his messy hair, thick beard, and eye patch, which became his recognizable symbol. He started wearing it after he lost his eye when struck by his surfboard while he was riding a wave in 1972.

In 1996, he established a non-profit organization called O’Neill Sea Odyssey, a marine and environmental education program which provided lessons in marine biology to students, teaching them about the relationship between the oceans and the environment and ocean preservation. About 100,000 children have been hosted by the organization since the start of the initiative which, reportedly, Jack considered as his proudest achievement and most successful project.

Sea Odyssey Logo. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Sea Odyssey Logo. CC BY-SA 3.0.


Referring to the importance of this project, O’Neil himself once stated: “The ocean is alive and we’ve got to take care of it. There’s no doubt in my mind that the O’Neill Sea Odyssey is the best thing I’ve ever done.

Read another story from us: The body of Alfred Wegener, the founder of the theory of continental drift, remains buried under the Greenland snow

O’Neill lived in an oceanfront property in Santa Cruz, California, from 1959 until his death on June 2nd, 2017. His company announced posthumously: “Surrounded by family, Jack was as soulful and encouraging as always, reiterating his love for his family, appreciation for a life well lived, his hopes for his friends and the oceans he loved, all within the familiarity of his oceanfront home of over 50 years, with the famous waves of his beloved Pleasure Point beach lapping at his deck.

Magda Origjanska

Magda Origjanska is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News